The Card Catalog: Privileged Information?

After coming home from church, and before dinner, I walked over to The Oval, the nucleus of the Ohio State campus.  The temperature was in the upper 70s (my Weather Channel icon currently says 82 degrees), so the sunbathers, Hacky Sack players, and dog-walkers staked out every square inch of terrain.  I walked through them, wishing I hadn’t worn a long-sleeved shirt, and headed into the William Oxley Thompson library.  (I wasn’t planning to be virtuous, burying myself in books while everyone else relaxed and enjoyed spring’s true debut; I left the house with the library as my destination.)

I’ve sung the praises of the library’s renovation in emails, diary entries, and letters, but I’ve found something about it that bothers me.  This may not be so much a result of the rebuilding, but of a policy change.

If you are not an Ohio State student, you cannot log onto the computerized card catalog without a guest pass.  I used the guest pass plenty of times when I had no home Internet.  After church, or on Saturday afternoon, I’d spend hours in Sullivant Hall blogging, reading email, or surfing.  When I arrived, the person at the front desk would give me a guest pass, good for 24 hours.

Since Thompson Library reopened, the restrictions have become more severe.  When a user gets a guest pass, he or she can only use a row of computers near the circulation desk, which means sitting on barstool-high benches that are very bad for someone with spinal issues.

Restriction to these few computers causes other issues, too.  There are computer terminals strategically located in the book stacks (many floors), but a guest cannot log into the card catalog.  The upper floor computers are not Internet-connected; they only display the card catalog.  But this doesn’t matter.  If you’re looking for a book, the only way to do it is to use one of the few guest computers, access the card catalog there, and then log off and go searching for your book.  God help you if you don’t have everything you need, and have to come back.  The registration process begins all over again.

Ohio State is a public university.  Many non-students and -staff use its facilities.  I debate every year whether to join the Friends of The Ohio State University Libraries.  I first visited Thompson Library in 1985, and spent many nights–the ones I did not spend on barstools–reading or writing in the stacks.  Unable to borrow books from there, I felt like the diabetic kid with his nose pressed against the candy store window.  It is wrong for them to make searching for books so difficult for a non-student.  I don’t know whether this was an oversight, or whether this subtle we-they situation is deliberate.  In the earlier years of my visits to the library, searching was simple.  There were computer terminals (green characters against a black screen, a boxy computer sitting on a lazy susan), and you did not need a staff person to help you use them.

Ohio University never made it difficult for non-O.U. people to use Alden Library.  At the time I lived in Athens, Alden was a much better library than the Athens County Public Libraries.  (The Athens branch was in a small storefront wedged between two nightclubs.  I lived in Athens over a year before I learned of its existence.)

I understand that OSU libraries should have restrictions on who can borrow.  If/when I become a Friend, I’m sure it’ll be well worth the $50 in dues.  There is, however, no reason why searching for a book that will be for in-house use should be so difficult.  Paradoxically, the catalog is available to someone searching from outside the library.  During my on-again, off-again cataloging project for my own scattered and disparate personal library, I keep three tabs open at all times when I search for call numbers: OhioLINK, the Library of Congress, and the OSU Libraries.  (I cannot take the laptop with me to the library, because–once again–only students will get Wi-Fi codes.)

This especially angered me when I walked into the Buckeye Reading Room.  Despite the beautiful weather and the sun’s first real appearance, the room was packed.  I searched in vain for the books which were old friends to me in the pre-renovation reading room, especially Garland Publishing’s massive green volumes of facsimiles of James Joyce’s original Ulysses manuscript, or the University of California at Berkeley’s exhaustive, definitive edition of Samuel Pepys’ diary.  None of these were available, and I could not just walk to the nearest computer and find where they now are.  I would have had to go downstairs, ask for a guest pass, log in, write the call numbers down, and then end my session and go find them.

Two pictures I took of the Buckeye Reading Room this afternoon.

Libraries are truly “the people’s university.”  Ohio taxpayers contribute to the operation of all public universities, and thus it is galling that they should have to undergo such aggravation when engaged in the simple task of finding a book.  “My treasures are within,” reads the inscription on the façade of the main library downtown.  Thompson Library holds many treasures as well, and many non-students value them more than the students.

By contrast, here is the scene on the OSU campus on The Oval: